19 November 2015
ARROGANCE OR CONFIDENCE: THE ROLE OF EGOS IN ELITE SPORT
How many of us have the confidence and self-belief to truly be a superstar? How many of us could attempt a seemingly impossible play in front of thousands of people, knowing that millions more are watching on TV around the world? The truth is, only a handful of humans go down in history as world class athletes. These champions share certain qualities; skill, a drive to win, passion. CONQA explores a particular trait that is required to be the best – ego, and finds that the line between confidence and arrogance is as fine as the line between success and failure.
It takes a mere two minutes and eleven seconds into the self-indulgent vanity project that is Ronaldo for the word “arrogant” to be mentioned, and quite frankly, it’s a wonder it took that long. The film about the Portuguese goal machine runs about the length of a football match but has more to do with ego and personal glory than sporting matters.
Winning team trophies, even Real Madrid’s La Decima Champions League triumph, become footnotes when compared to individual honours. Cristiano Ronaldo’s statistics, sensational though they may be, are nothing but notches on his bed post and are treated as glories in and of themselves rather than contributions to a collective achievement.
But should that change our opinion of Ronaldo? Does his ego and selfishness make him a less accomplished footballer? Of course it doesn’t. If anything it makes him a better one. He cites this perceived arrogance as a source of his power and dismisses anyone who has a disdain for his ripe self-confidence. In the film, he makes it clear that from a young age he had ambitions to be the best footballer on the planet. Nothing else mattered to him and so he worked tirelessly to achieve that goal. He was driven by an egotistical single mindedness.
Speaking on his role in the Second World War, Winston Churchill said, “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been put in preparation for this hour and for this trial.” Ronaldo, in his own way, echoes Churchill’s sense of self-aggrandising purpose when pursuing and ultimately receiving the Ballon d’Or for best footballer of the year (an honour bestowed on him three times, one short of Lionel Messi, a player depicted as a rival in the film and referred to as “the other guy”).
There is almost a sense of entitlement that great athletes portray when they’re winning. Holding trophies aloft is not only the result of hard work and great skill, but is a representation of the world as it should be. Anything contrary is an abomination of nature. We all know that success is never accidental but is rather the culmination of years of sacrifice and preparation. For champion athletes, success is simply the inevitability of that process.
That is why star athletes have egos both on and off the field. They know better than anyone how difficult it is to get the opportunity to express oneself on a global stage and once they’re there, they’re not going to hold back. As Grant Downie, the Head of Performance at Manchester City FC Academy, says, “You want players to have an ego. To go in front of fifty or sixty thousand people and express yourself, you need to have a strong sense of self-belief.” Without that, no champion would ever be able to take that long range shot or execute a skilful manoeuvre. Self-doubt is the most challenging opponent any athlete faces and nothing counters this foe with more success than a strong ego.
Downie is a football man and works in a sport where self-confidence all too often reveals itself to be a strong ego. This goes a long way to explain the poor treatment of referees as well as the ongoing theatrics of many players looking for a foul. Ronaldo is not alone. Players like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Mario Balotelli are somewhat the norm. Players who are humble are seen as rarities.
This is not the case in other sports. The recently retired All Black rugby captain, Richie McCaw, achieved everything a player can achieve in the game, both personally and with club and country. Despite the success he remained one of the most humble athletes in the world. This is perhaps indicative of a sport where arrogance belies a sense of self-confidence, and humility is not an extra feather in one’s cap, but is instead a requirement for success.
There are thousands of books and blogs on the merits of a strong sense of self and how to build an ego when it has been damaged. Individuals will cite different reasons and sources for their confidence; a strong family base, extra hours on the training field, a solid team structure or the guiding hand of a mentor. For all athletes a strong ego is nothing without positive performances and it is through positive performances that a strong ego can develop.
This can take on a different meaning for different athletes. Sure, all champions want to win, but even winning is subjective. For Brian O’Driscoll, the former captain of Ireland’s rugby team, winning meant being involved in a collective achievement. “One thing I learnt early on in my career is that personal gratification takes second place.” What would he think off Ronaldo’s dogmatic obsession with the Ballon d’Or?
O’Driscoll is an example of an athlete who is task orientated rather than ego orientated. For task orientated athletes like O’Driscoll and McCaw, the goal is to achieve something great rather than to be great. Ultimately, the end goal is the same, but the motivation is different and this often comes through in their rhetoric. Michael Schumacher, for all his individual achievements, never failed to mention the team when being interviewed after a victory. It was always “we had a good race” or “it all came together for us”. I’m not saying Schumacher didn’t win races for himself, but his sense of a collective unit underpinned his personal ambitions.
All elite athletes, especially those at the very top, surely can’t help but feel a sense of entitlement. Reviewing Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, Playing It My Way, forESPN’s The Cricket Monthly, Vaibhav Sharma says, “Egoism and an unshakable idea of personal destiny are the sine qua non of every sporting champion.” He argues that if you continuously remind an individual of his or her greatness (in Tendulkar’s case, godliness) enough times, eventually that message will stick.
An athlete like Tiger Woods , who has often been labelled as arrogant and who was raised to believe he is the best in the world, does not solely rely on that upbringing to fuel a positive ego. The awards, the massive salaries and the hordes of adoring fans all reinforce this message. Some might argue that it is a sign of the celebrity swamp into which elite sport is sinking, but it is that reinforcement that makes Woods believe he can win any tournament despite whatever form he may be in. All great champions believe they are great. They are then able to do great things, they then get reminded of their greatness by fans and media, and the cycle continues.
It is, however, reassuring to know that there are still some elite athletes who measure their greatness by a different standard. Team MTN-Qhubeka (now Team Dimension Data) shook up the old establishment of professional cycling when they became the first team from Africa to compete in the Tour de France. Their 5th place finish was remarkable but it wasn’t their only success story. The team are changing lives in rural South Africa by empowering young people. By exchanging bicycles for community work, this professional cycling team breaks down the barrier that exists between elite athletes and ordinary people. For Head of Performance Support and Medical, Dr Carol Austin, this allows the riders to achieve positive results without the need of a strong ego.
“Ego in our team is not a factor,” she says. “Many of our riders previously never really understood the poverty that many people live with in South Africa. I’d love to see how many elite athletes around the world would change their perspective if they saw how our riders give back. Our athletes are very proud to be involved in a team where changing lives is the goal and that inspires them to perform.”
Ego and arrogance are two words that often have negative connotations, and are labels we are quick to plaster on some athletes but not others. Some believe that David Warner is arrogant while AB de Villiers is not. Lionel Messi is the epitome of humility whereas his rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, is the opposite. But make no mistake, all elite athletes have planet sized egos to match their supreme skill sets. Ego doesn’t always have to manifest itself into overt arrogance but it is always needed when striving to be the best.